Our rivers are in danger

A chemical cocktail is polluting English rivers.
How can we improve our water quality?

Published on 21 January 2022

Published on 21 January 2022

Rivers are the natural arteries of the country.

They are home to some of England's most iconic species, like water voles, salmon, trout, otters and kingfishers. They cycle nutrients and help protect us from flooding. They also provide beautiful spaces for recreation and reflection.

But a chemical cocktail of sewage, agricultural waste, plastic and chemicals is polluting rivers. Only 14% of all the rivers in England can currently claim to have good ecological status.

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UK Parliament/Tyler Allicock

UK Parliament/Tyler Allicock

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UK Parliament/Gabriel Sainhas

UK Parliament/Gabriel Sainhas

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UK Parliament/Tyler Allicock

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UK Parliament/Gabriel Sainhas

UK Parliament/Gabriel Sainhas

Our inquiry

In October 2020, the Chair of our committee introduced a bill in Parliament. The bill proposed to make water companies ensure that untreated sewage is not released into rivers and other inland waters like canals and lakes. Our committee then started investigating the water quality of our rivers, launching an inquiry that December. We soon realised that the health of our rivers is about more than just sewage pollution.

English river quality is the worst in Europe.
— Wildlife and Countryside Link, to our committee (evidence WQROO77)

Regulation of water quality in the UK is largely handled by the devolved governments of England, Scotland, and Wales. Here, we’ve primarily focused on rivers in England. But rivers flow across borders, and occasionally borders run down the middle of rivers. Many of the issues we looked into are also relevant for other parts of the UK too.

At least twenty rivers and inland waters run through the constituencies of our committee members, from Woodsmill Stream and Glynde Reach to the rivers Brent, Avon, and Trent.

As covid-19 restrictions allowed, we were able to see some issues and potential solutions first-hand. We went to the Thames Water waste water treatment works at Burford. There, we saw examples of nature-based solutions to wastewater treatment like human-made wetlands. We took a trip to the River Windrush in the Cotswolds, facilitated by the campaign group Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (WASP). On that visit we spoke to trained citizen scientists who regularly monitor the water quality in the area.

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UK Parliament/Tyler Allicock

UK Parliament/Tyler Allicock

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UK Parliament/Tyler Allicock

UK Parliament/Tyler Allicock

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UK Parliament/Gabriel Sainhas

UK Parliament/Gabriel Sainhas

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UK Parliament/Gabriel Sainhas

UK Parliament/Gabriel Sainhas

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UK Parliament/Gabriel Sainhas

UK Parliament/Gabriel Sainhas

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UK Parliament/Tyler Allicock

UK Parliament/Tyler Allicock

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UK Parliament/Gabriel Sainhas

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UK Parliament/Tyler Allicock

UK Parliament/Tyler Allicock

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UK Parliament/Tyler Allicock

UK Parliament/Tyler Allicock

The scope of the problem

There are three main sources of pollution in our rivers:

  • Sewage and wastewater
  • Agriculture
  • Run-off from towns, cities and transport known as 'urban diffuse pollution'

Water companies appear to be regularly dumping untreated or partially-treated sewage in rivers, despite permits that only allow them to do this in exceptional circumstances. Farm slurry and fertiliser run off is choking rivers with damaging algal blooms. Plastic pollution—sometimes coated with chemicals that can harm aquatic life—is clogging up drains and sewage works and creating ‘wet wipe reefs’ in rivers.

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UK Parliament/Tyler Allicock

UK Parliament/Tyler Allicock

We heard that outdated, underfunded, and inadequate monitoring regimes are getting in the way of getting a complete overview of the health of our rivers. The CHEM Trust warned us that the capacity of most water quality monitoring 'only shows the tip of the iceberg in terms of chemical pollution in UK rivers'. Not a single river in England has received a clean bill of health for chemical contamination.


During the recent lockdowns many people discovered the joys of wild swimming and water sports in rivers. Yet few outdoor swimmers realise how dangerous it can be if they are downstream of a sewage treatment works or a storm overflow.

River quality is the best it has been since the 1990s, but new challenges have arisen along with persisting issues.

What should
be done?

A selection of our
recommendations

1.The Environment Agency must extend the number of substances it regularly monitors in rivers. The data that is being collected does not provide a comprehensive picture of risks to human health, aquatic life, or microplastic contamination in rivers. We recommend a UK-wide survey of emerging pollutants and microplastic pollution of river environments, including an assessment of their potential impact on aquatic ecology.

2. The use of plastic in single-use hygiene products should be prohibited, with exemptions only provided for medical requirements. The Government should adopt
the measures outlined in the Plastics (Wet Wipes) Bill to prohibit the manufacture and sale of single use cleaning and hygiene products containing plastic.

3. Swim England told us that 2.1 million people swam in rivers, lochs, lakes and seas in 2017/18. Throughout our inquiry we heard that more people started using rivers over the course of the coronavirus pandemic. Every community in the country should have access to waters—whether coastal or inland—that are safe for people to swim in without running the risk of falling ill.

Regulators and water companies have made a great deal of progress since the 1990s in cleaning up and monitoring our coastal waters so that they are fit for bathing. This progress must now be extended to rivers. Designation of stretches of river as bathing waters will help to drive coordinated action to improve water quality.

We recommend that the Government actively encourage the designation of at least one widely-used stretch of river for bathing in each water company area by 2025.

Cleaning up our rivers is important for public health and vital to protect wildlife. The world is experiencing an extinction crisis and freshwater ecosystems are on the front line.

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UK Parliament/Gabriel Sainhas

UK Parliament/Gabriel Sainhas

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UK Parliament/Gabriel Sainhas

UK Parliament/Gabriel Sainhas

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UK Parliament/Gabriel Sainhas

UK Parliament/Gabriel Sainhas

What's next?

The Government must now respond to our report. 'Water Quality in Rivers', was published on 13 January 2022. The Government has two months to respond to our recommendations.

Detailed information about our inquiry can be found on our website.

If you're interested in our work, you can find out more on the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee website. You can also follow us on Twitter.


Environmental Audit Committee membership - link goes to page on committees.parliament.uk website

The Environmental Audit Committee is a House of Commons select committee. We monitor the policies and programmes of government departments and non-departmental public bodies, ensuring they contribute to environmental protection and sustainable development. We also audits their performance against sustainable development and environmental protection targets.

Cover image/video by Kelly L via Pexels